Wednesday 21 August 2019

A single-party, Fine Gael government looks 'least unlikely'

FF thinks, with merit, it would be destroyed if it went into coalition as FG’s junior partner
FF thinks, with merit, it would be destroyed if it went into coalition as FG’s junior partner

Shane Coleman

The electorate's indecision is final. They're just not that into you. At least that's what the polls over the past six months are saying, with voters still spread thinly over 10 different groupings.

If a new government was being negotiated this week - as Fine Gael originally wanted - then, based on the current poll figures, no one would be elected Taoiseach.

It's hard to blame voters. Nobody is entirely convincing. People remain lukewarm on Enda Kenny and Fine Gael has struggled to set the agenda after a strong first half of government. Right or wrong, a good chunk of the people who voted Labour last time around are furious with the party.

Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, remains toxic for many voters. Sinn Féin, beset by a range of controversies, even more so. Independents are opposed to everything bad, but far less clear about spelling out what they're in favour of. The far left parties are always going to be a minority taste, while both Renua and the Social Democrats are struggling to make an impact.

There's nobody of the ilk of Garret FitzGerald, in 1982, or Bertie Ahern, in 1997, capturing the attention - and imagination - of the electorate. Based on the weekend poll, the only possible coalition would be Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael/Sinn Féin. The latter option won't happen. The former - while Fine Gael would be keen - has been ruled out by Fianna Fáil. It believes, with merit, that it would be destroyed if it went into coalition as Fine Gael's junior partner. It would copperfasten Fine Gael's number one status and, more dangerously, leave the field free for Sinn Féin as the main opposition party.

The party also knows its grassroots won't tolerate a coalition with the old enemy. And that is at least part of the reason why the likes of Michéal Martin and Billy Kelleher have been so dismissive of the idea. Fianna Fáil cannot afford to antagonise what's left of its core vote.

Of course, if a new Dáil failed to elect a Taoiseach over a number of votes, there would be considerable pressure on Fianna Fáil to do the right thing 'in the national interest'. Perhaps if it did particularly well in the election - and got to within five points of Fine Gael - a revolving Taoiseach may be on the table. But until any of that happens, it does currently mean it when it says coalition as a junior partner is out. Which means, if a government is to be formed, Fine Gael will have to do most of the heavy lifting.

Despite the polls, that may not be as long a shot as people make out. People scoffed at Jack O'Connor for suggesting, a couple of weeks back, a single-party, Fine Gael government was a real possibility.

But it's not as far fetched as people believe. The old rule that to get an overall majority, or close to it, a party would need to be at 41pc-plus, doesn't apply this time.

The field is so fragmented. Fine Gael came within seven seats of a majority in 2011 with 36pc of the vote. With the voters spread more thinly in the spring, 36pc could well be enough.

And at 31pc, Fine Gael is within shouting distance of that mark, particularly when you take account of the trend - the party is up six percentage points since July. It's been a slow and incremental rise, a couple of points here and there, but steady and unmistakable.

In the context of a General Election campaign, where Enda Kenny - unconvincing and all as he may well be - is the only credible candidate for Taoiseach, and voters are focused on electing a government, that has the potential to increase.

It's far from certain it'll happen. But it's definitely possible. Look at the UK general election, when at the last moment voters decided David Cameron was the only realistic option for prime minister and support consolidated around the Conservative Party.

And remember, Fine Gael doesn't need to get to 79 seats - half the seats in the next Dáil - to get Kenny re-elected as Taoiseach. Seventy seats or more and it's effectively game over.

Even on the worst possible day for Labour, the likes of Brendan Howlin, Emmet Stagg, Willie Penrose, Jan O'Sullivan, Brendan Ryan and Mark Wall (son of Jack) are pretty much guaranteed to take seats, and there'll be others.

They would certainly vote for Kenny as Taoiseach and might even form part of the government.

And among the pool of Independents, there's plenty of scope for Fine Gael to cut deals. Michael Lowry, Michael Healy Rae, Noel Grealish and Maureen O'Sullivan are the names most mentioned in Fine Gael circles as solid types who would make an agreement and stick to it.

Despite the ridiculing of O'Connor's warning, right now a single-party, Fine Gael government, possibly propped up by Labour TDs and Independents, might even be the most likely option.

The 'least unlikely option' might be a better way of phrasing it. Because, given the current coolness of voters towards all of the political parties, it's impossible to call what'll happen.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the 'Sunday Show' on at 10am

Irish Independent

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